Showing posts with label UK. Show all posts
Showing posts with label UK. Show all posts

October 6, 2020

Rare Books in an Even Rarer Recovery

On 29 January 2017 an organized crime group from Romania targeted and robbed over 200 rare books from a warehouse in Feltham, West London.  The collection consisted of 15th and 16th-century books and included works by well-known historical figures Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Dante Alighieri, and Nicolas Copernicus.  The most valuable of these was the 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus but another lessor well known, and equally rare, texts, including a Muraqqa - album with Persian and Mughal miniatures were also taken in the heist

The books were owned by three collectors, two Italian and one based in Germany, and had been flown into the UK and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse while awaiting export to the United States for a scheduled book fair.  As the books were only intended to be at the warehouse for a short time period it is likely that the group involved in the theft had inside knowledge of the schedule of the books’ travel.  

When the theft was initially made public, many newspapers were more focused on the burglars' “mission-impossible" or "Ocean's Eleven-style" theatrics rather than on the cultural value of the rare books which were stolen, completely missing the value of Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” or fantastic etchings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

To achieve their goal, the thieve's drilled through the building's skylight and rappelled down into the warehouse in order to avoid security measures.  Once inside they set about placing the rare books in large bags that could be hoisted back onto the roof, allowing the suspects to leave the way they came.  While it was expected that the books were either pre-sold to a collector or bound for the black market, nothing was seen of the books for nearly 3 years.   

The investigation of the theft was a multi-national collaboration involving the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation and multiple law enforcement groups.   In a coordinated joint action day, in 2019 the Romanian, UK, and Italian authorities arrested 15 suspects, following 45 searches, in Romania and the UK, arresting a group of individuals believed to be responsible for a string of 12 highly-organised burglaries carried out across between December 2016 and April 2019.

Some of those taken into custody were linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clămparu crime group. This group has been known to be responsible for major heists, prostitution, and human trafficking offenses.   

According to released court records, forensic evidence and CCTV footage were both key to the investigation of the thefts and to the arrests of the co-conspirators.  Two days prior to the book theft CCTV footage captured images of three individuals involved in the heist:  Daniel David, Victor Opariuc, and Narcis Popescu, all three of whom are seen on footage arriving in the UK and driving to the warehouse in a blue Renault Megane. CCTV footage then shows David and Opariuc exit the van, leaving Popescu as a lookout while they cut through the warehouse's perimeter fencing.  

On the night of the theft itself, footage confirms that both Daniel David and Victor Opariuc returned, drilling through the skylight and entering the storage repository from above.  Once inside they are able to work undetected for five hours.  At 2:15 AM the pair exited back through the roof of the warehouse carrying large carryall bags, then loading up their cache into the Megane before driving away.  

To cover their tracks, the thieves quickly abandoned their get-away vehicle after wiping down the interior with cleaning products.  The stolen books were then transported to a house in Balham, rented temporarily to Narcis Popescu, where they remained for two days before being secreted out of the country.

Through examining cell phone records, the investigative teams were able to determine that the books were transported by a fourth accomplice, Marian Mamaliga to Romania, who left the UK through the Eurotunnel starting at Folkestone, Kent, and exited on the European mainland at Coquelles in Northern France. 

But even with that foresight to wipe down the car, forensic investigators were able to find a single hair on the drivers’ headrest which had escaped the burglar's clean-up.  This hair was later confirmed to be a match with Narcis Popescu.  DNA evidence inside the warehouse found on an escape ladder would also confirm the presence of Daniel David at the scene of the crime.   At other crime scenes, the members of the ring left drinks behind with traces of their DNA.

Perhaps the biggest break in the case though came from the evidence of a different theft conducted by the same group.  Some six months after the theft of the books, in July 2017, the group had moved on to target an electronics company, stealing some £150,000 worth of Lenovo laptops from another storage facility.   Similar to the book theft incident, the culprits of this later theft entered through the roof, this time using ladders both to scale and enter the building. This time transporting the hot merchandise proved their undoing.  Stopped by Romanian police Marian Mamalig could not provide proper proof of ownership for the laptops, and was arrested.   

Following resulting leads in 45 different locations in 3 separate countries, the books were recovered on Wednesday 16 September 16 2020 bringing the three-year joint investigation to an end.  Still wrapped in their original transport packaging, the rare books had been buried in a cement crawlspace under the floor tiles of a house in rural Romania in the historic region of Moldavia.  Once in law enforcement custody, the books were examined by conservators to assess for any moisture or mold damage and to carefully dehumidify the pages to prevent further damage. 

When speaking to the success of the investigation, Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Crime South said: “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”  Twelve of those involved in the thefts have pled guilty and received sentences  They are:  

  • Marian Albu received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Daniel David received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Liviu Leahu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Marian Mamaliga received 4 years and 1 month imprisonment.  
  • Traian Mihulca received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Victor Petrut Opariuc received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Vasille Ionel Paragina received 3 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Paul Popeanu received 3 years 3 months imprisonment  
  • Gavril Popinciuc received 5 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Narcis Popsecu received 4 years 2 months imprisonment  
  • Ilie Ungureanu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Christian Unrgureanu received 5 years and 1 month imprisonment   

A thirteenth is set to go to trial in March 2021. 

By: Lynette Turnblom and Lynda Albertson

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Albertson, Lynda. ‘Theft: Antiquarian Booksellers Association’s reports dramatic book thief heist of 160 texts, some from the 15th and 16th centuries’. ARCA Art Crime Blog (blog), 13 February 2017. https://art-crime.blogspot.com/2017/02/theft-antiquarian-booksellers.html.
Bland, Archie. ‘Rare Books Stolen in London Heist Found under Floor in Romania’. The Guardian, 18 September 2020, sec. UK news. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/18/rare-books-stolen-london-heist-found-floor-romania.
Brunt, Martin. ‘Romanian Crime Gang Members Jailed After String of High-Value Burglaries’. Sky News, 5 October 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/romanian-crime-gang-members-jailed-after-string-of-high-value-burglaries-12090902.
Chesters, Laura. ‘Stolen Collection of Antiquarian Books Worth £2.5m Recovered from Underground Store in Romania’. Antiques Trade Gazette, 19 September 2020. https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2020/stolen-collection-of-antiquarian-books-worth-25m-recovered-from-underground-store-in-romania/.
Eurojust. ‘15 Arrests in Theft of Galileo and Newton Original Books’. Eurojust, 19 June 2019. https://www.eurojust.europa.eu/15-arrests-theft-galileo-and-newton-original-books.
Hamilton, Fiona. ‘Ladder Blunder Led Detectives to Gang Behind Heist of Rare Books’. The Times, 2 October 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ladder-blunder-led-detectives-to-gang-behind-heist-of-rare-books-xdpmsstqv.
ILAB. ‘Warehouse Theft London 2017 - Stolen Books’. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, 12 January 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20180112012437/http://www.stolen-book.org:80/eng/presentation/Warehouse_Theft_London_2017.html.
Krishna, Swampa. ‘Thieves Rappelled Into a London Warehouse in Rare Book Heist | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine’. The Smithsonian, 14 February 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thieves-rappelled-london-warehouse-in-heist-180962176/.
‘Romanian Nationals “Stored 170 Stolen Books Worth More than £1.3 Million in a Tooting Warehouse”’. Wandsworth Times, 24 February 2020. https://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/18256463.romanian-nationals-stored-170-stolen-books-worth-1-3-million-tooting-warehouse/.
The Crown Prosecution Service. ‘Romanian Gang Jailed for Burglary Spree Including 200-plus Stolen Ancient Books’. The Crown Prosecution Service, 2 October 2020. https://www.cps.gov.uk/london-south/news/romanian-gang-jailed-burglary-spree-including-200-plus-stolen-ancient-books.
The Metropolitan Police. ‘Officers Recover “Irreplaceable” Books Stolen in Feltham Burglary’. The Metropolitan Police, 18 September 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/officers-recover-irreplaceable-books-stolen-in-feltham-burglary-410891.
———. ‘Organised Crime Group Jailed for Book Thefts’. The Metropolitan Police, 2 October 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/organised-crime-group-jailed-for-book-thefts-411930.

June 4, 2020

Revisiting the UK's Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act of 2003

The Torbryan rood screen
This Friday ARCA reviews one of the few successful cases of prosecution using the UK's Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act of 2003.

Christopher Cooper was an unemployed, amateur antique dealer in the United Kingdom, who is known to have targeted unsecured places of worship, stealing a range of ecclesiastic objects, including bibles, crucifixes, Anglo Saxon carvings and even the top and bottom of a stone coffin from St Mary’s Church in Foy in Herefordshire - a heavy relic he pilfered over the course of two separate raids, as the first went unnoticed.  

In addition to stealing from vulnerable religious institutions, Cooper was discovered to have manufactured his own "antiques," passing them off to his customers as genuine, often defaced as historic relics.  Some of the objects he was charged with selling included historic religious statues, stained glass, stone coffins, crosses, baptismal font plugs, and rare bibles. 

Over the course of his three-year crime spree, it was reported that Cooper pocketed from up to £150,000 from the proceeds of his criminal activity, brokering the sale of stolen objects via at least two purportedly unsuspecting individuals, whom he never met face-to-face, as he used a third party for the delivery of the pieces to maintain some semblance of distance from their apparent sale. 

Partial Chronology of events in this case:

September 2011 - September 2014
Posing as an ordinary visitor, Cooper targeted quiet churches throughout England and Wales where his activity would remain largely unnoticed, in some cases even until after his arrest. 

2012 
Entering Coombes Parish Church, in Lancing, Cooper stole a 13th-century Lancing corpus of Jesus Christ which had been fixed to a crucifix 12 feet above the ground. The 10 cm gilded copper figure of Christ, thought to have been crafted in Limoges, France, was first recovered in the churchyard at Coombes Parish Church in 1877, likely the victim of the cultural upheaval that at one point splintered Catholic Europe and spurred a revival of iconoclasm. 

2013 
Cooper hacked a pair of 15th-century decorative oak panels out of the Torbryan rood screen which divides the nave from the altar area of the church at the Holy Trinity church at Torbryan in Devon. These historic panels were one of only a few of the 40 panels which once stretched the width of the church. Like the Lancing corpus, these decorative panels also had survived the iconoclasm of the reformation in the 16th century and were painted with the images of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch.

1535 Myles Coverdale Bible:
The First Bible Printed in the English
This same year, Cooper also offered a rare Coverdale bible to an unnamed collector for £18,000, apparently before he had time to steal the object, or perhaps never intending to send anything at all. Concerned that the object purchased and paid for had not been sent, the buyer informed the Metropolitan Police and filed a report with the art and antiques unit.     

Around this same period, the Metropolitan Police received information from HM Revenue and Customs relating to the illegal importation of a stuffed gorilla's head by an individual in South London, an object subject to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As a result of their subsequent search of that individual's property, a number of ecclesiastic objects were recovered, including the two oak church panels which had been stolen from Holy Trinity Church in Devon, as well as a heart stone from another religious institution. 

When questioned by the police, the buyer of the gorilla head and religious panels admitted that he had bought ecclesiastic items online from a man from Herefordshire.  Based on these accumulative leads, a nationwide police initiative, into the organised theft and black market trade of religious and church artifacts in England and Wales, code-named "Icarus," began.

January 2015
Eighteen months later, the investigation "Icarus" which brought in the West Mercia Police, is headed up by Detective Inspector Martyn Barnes, with the support of the Met's Art and Antiques unit in London. 

The West Mercia Police arrest Cooper under suspicion of a series of church thefts carried out in a number of areas including: in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Ross on Wye, Ledbury, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Brecon, south and north Wales, Warwick, Cirencester, Kent, Suffolk, and Oxfordshire Sussex, Essex, and Swindon. While not originally cooperative, police recovered a number of stolen objects found in Cooper's possession, including historic stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass, and first edition King James Bibles which Cooper had stolen from churches across Wales, replacing them with modern editions. 

While conducting a search of his property, police also recovered a notebook that was found to contain a list of churches and coding used in documentation of his crime spree. Perhaps realising he had been undone, Cooper eventually cooperated with law enforcement, and drew a sketch of the 13th-century Lancing corpus, pinpointing Coombes Church on a road map as the site where he stole the cross ornament. 

Shortly thereafter Cooper was initially charged with theft under the Theft Act 1968, as well as fraud, for selling fakes and stolen property online. Later he was charged via the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 which is reserved for the acquisition of cultural property and makes it an offense to acquire, dispose of, import or export 'tainted' cultural objects, or agree or arrange to do so; and for connected purposes. 

Given his initial cooperation in identifying sites where he had stolen objects, Cooper was released on bail on his own recognizance until September 2015. 

6 May 2016 
Cooper pled guilty to seven charges of theft, two charges of fraud and one charge of dealing in tainted cultural items at Hereford Crown Court. In total, he admitted to 37 thefts from churches throughout England and Wales, 30 of which he asked the Court to be taken into consideration (TIC). 

Cooper was sentenced to three years in prison for dealing in tainted antiquities, for each of seven charges of theft, set to run concurrently. Cooper was also given an additional eight months imprisonment for the two charges of fraud.   In total, he was scheduled to spend just three years and seven months in prison. 

As part of his sentencing, Cooper was also issued with a POCA (Proceeds of Crime Act) order, which means he has to repay the amount of money owed to his duped clients when he is able to do so.

Christopher Cooper's sentencing made West Mercia Police the first UK police force in the country to secure a conviction using the very carefully worded Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.  Yet he was the only individual charged for his involvement in this criminal activity.  None of the purchasers, who willingly purchased material from him without concern for the object's origins, were ever publically revealed.

On the books, it has been difficult to convict art thieves and their collaborators in the UK of dealing in tainted cultural objects under the special-focused 2003 act. Culprits directly involved in a theft are more often charged using the broader charge of theft. 

Art crime offenses such as handling stolen good, in both cases require proof of dishonestly, a technicality that does not encourage suspect resellers and colluding buyers to ask probing questions as part of their due diligence process when acquiring cultural objects that likely have an illicit pedigree.  This need for plausible deniability serves to disincentivise buyers from probing too deeply, when seeking to establish the legitimacy of a purchase, as accumulating too much evidence, which could be used to establish dishonesty or collusion in a crime and earmark them as known handlers of stolen goods, could hold these individuals accountable, while a simpler "I didn't know" often makes it more difficult for law enforcement to prove coinvolvement, and to make charges stick.

By Lynda Albertson



Sources used for this article.

Cahal Milmo. 2016. ‘How a Gorilla Skull Helped Snare Britain’s Most Prolific Church Thief’. News. INews - JPIMedia Publications Ltd. 13 May 2016. https://inews.co.uk/news/prolific-church-thief-generation-finally-jailed-538372.

Clarke, Paul J. 2016. ‘Minutes Annual Meeting 17th May 2016 – Peterchurch Parish Council’. https://peterchurchparishcouncil.org.uk/minutes-annual-meeting-17th-may-2016/.

Connell, James. 2016. ‘CRIME FILES: Prolific Church Raider Ends up behind Bars’. Malvern Gazette, 10 May 2016. https://www.malverngazette.co.uk/news/18438621.crime-files-prolific-church-raider-ends-behind-bars/.

Herman, Alexander. 2016. ‘Conviction at Last under 2003 Act’. Blog. Institute of Art and Law (blog). 11 May 2016. https://ial.uk.com/1448-2/.

Morris, Steven. 2016. ‘Antique Dealer Who Plundered Churches for Profit Jailed | UK News | The Guardian’. 10 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/may/10/antique-dealer-plundered-churches-for-profit-jailed-christopher-cooper.
West Mercia Police. 2015. ‘West Mercia Police - Images Releases of Church Items Recovered in Operation Icarus’. June 2015. https://www.westmercia.police.uk/OperationIcarus.

Morris, Steven, and Maev Kennedy. 2015. ‘Stolen 15th-Century Torbryan Church Icons Recovered by Police’. The Guardian, 19 May 2015, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/19/stolen-15th-century-torbryan-church-icons-recovered-by-police.

Oldham, Jeanette.. 2016. ‘Church Raider Jailed after Stealing Priceless Relics, Including Ancient COFFIN - Birmingham Live’. 6 May 2016. https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/church-raider-jailed-after-stealing-11295721.

Oldham, Jeanette. 2016. ‘Crooked Antiques Dealer Jailed for Three Years for Stealing Priceless Relics from Churches’. Coventry Telegraph, 9 May 2016. https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/crooked-antiques-dealer-jailed-three-11305398.

April 25, 2020

Saturday, April 25, 2020 - ,,,,, No comments

Christ Church loans and other Dirk Obbink answered and unanswered questions.


In an article in today's UK Times, the London newspaper reported that a review of Christ Church college's annual reports indicate that there was an equity-sharing arrangement with Dr. Dirk Obbink for £434,000 in 2018 in order for the professor to purchase a property. 

Agreements of this type are not unusual per se and are even written into the Statutes of Christ Church Oxford:

5. Equity sharing arrangements for Official Students, Officers and other persons employed by the House 

(a) Subject to such provisions (if any) as may from time to time be contained in the By-laws but without prejudice to the powers of investment contained in clause 2 of this Statute the Governing Body may enter into equity sharing arrangements with an OfficialStudent, Officer mentioned in Statute XVI.  1 or other person employed by the House who does not reside in the House.
 

(b) Subject as aforesaid, the Governing Body may dispose of any interest in a property acquired under an equity sharing arrangement to any co-beneficiary of the trust of land on such terms as it thinks fit.
 

(c) For the purposes of sub-clauses (a) and (b) of this clause, an equity sharing arrangement is an arrangement to purchase property jointly with an Official Student, Officer or other person employed by the House and with family members of such persons is a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

Awkward timing and unfinished business

While The Times didn't give an exact date of the execution of this financial arrangement with Obbink, we know that by 4 June 2018, in a statement issued by the Egyptian Exploration Society that they had questioned Dr. Obbink about the sale of P.Oxy. 5345, the so-called First Century Mark fragment.  The EES has repeatedly affirmed that this papyrus fragment has never been for sale and was allegedly sold without their consent or knowledge along with other fragments determined to be missing from the collection held at Oxford University’s Sackler Library, all of which made their way into the collections at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.

According to the EES statement, when questioned Obbink acknowledged having shown P.Oxy. 5345 to Scott Carroll, at the time affiliated with the MotB and the Green Collection's point person for purchases, as well as to Oxford students in his college rooms but had "insisted that he had never said the papyrus was for sale, and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text."

How this equity arrangement with Christ Church will be effected by Obbink's legal troubles, if at all remain to be seen.   

One also has to wonder what the impact will be, if any, of Obbink's legal entanglements on the publicly funded research grant he obtained through the UK's Research and Innovation (UKRI) on Living Virtually: Creating and Interfacing Digital Surrogates of Textual Data Embedded (Hidden) in Cultural Heritage Artefacts.  Funded from May 2019 through April 2022 for £845,579 Dr. Obbink is listed as the project's Principal Investigator.

One thing the Times article did clear up is that it was Professor Obbink's legal team, and not Christ Church College, who contacted The Oxford Blue newspaper and threatened legal action for them having named the professor in reporting his arrest on 2 March 2020.  That contact has resulted in the student newspaper amending their original article, which is now back online.

April 18, 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,,,,, No comments

Censorship by the Oxford University or by Dirk Obbink's law team?

On 16 April Lois Helsop at The Oxford Blue broke the news of that Thames Valley police had arrested American papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford University, on 2 March 2020.  ARCA, as well as prominent news outlets, picked up on this news notice, and in our case, linked back to Helsop's original article and directed our readers also to earlier ARCA postings (see this running thread) of this professor and the buying and selling of ancient texts.   

Professor Obbink has been the focus of much journalistic attention regarding the unauthorised sale of papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus collection, which is owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and housed at Oxford's Sackler Library, pieces of which were discovered to have been purchased by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. 

Today that Oxford Blue article has been removed.  Replaced by a brief statement which reads:
"This article is currently not available while The Oxford Blue takes counsel on legal threats it has received. The factual accuracy of this article is not contested by any party."
One has to ask, whose lawyer's rattled the young newspaper's cage?  Was it Oxford University's or Dr. Obbink's? While official guidance over whether arrested suspects’ names should be published ahead of charge is mixed, it is poor form to intimidate journalists for reporting facts on a high profile case, knowing a student newspaper doesn't have the funds to fight a litigious battle.  Luckily, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, a service that preserves web pages, has a copy of the original story archived, at least for now, or until they too receive a lawyerly take down request. 

Archived news articles are indispensable research resources as they can help reconstruct events, even the distasteful ones, which are necessary for historical and comparative research.  Often they are the last trace we have before knowledge is locked away in private nondisclosure settlements, or worse, when reporting is removed to avoid threats, legal and otherwise.

Here's to a universal access to all knowledge and if you have not already PDFed this webpage to memorialise the material for your own research, then now might be a good time, especially if you are following the interrelated cases of ethical behaviour in the museum and academic worlds as closely as we are.

March 16, 2020

Museum Theft: Three Baroque paintings stolen from Christ Church, University of Oxford

Image Credit:  Thames Valley Police
Three Baroque Period paintings have been stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery, an art museum at Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England.  According to law enforcement reports the theft took place at around 11pm on Saturday, 14 March 2020. 

The three paintings are:

Oil on Canvas, circa 1616
H 91 x W 55 cm
Accession number: JBS 246

Oil on Canvas, circa 1640 
H 75.2 x W 61 cm
Accession number: JBS 222

Oil on Canvas, circa 1580
H 75.5 x W 64 cm
Accession number: JBS 180

All three paintings had been bequeathed to Christ Church: two of them centuries ago.

The museum is known for its impressive collection of Old Masters paintings and drawings, with an emphasis on Italian art from the 14th to the 18th century. Works in the museum also include paintings and drawings by Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Tintoretto, many of which were donated by General John Guise (1682/1683–1765) in the eighteenth century and whose portrait is also to be seen in one of the museum's rooms. Guise is known to have donated some 200 artworks to the college in furtherance of its art education programming. 

Headed by Detective Chief Inspector Jon Capps, the Thames Valley Police are  appealing for witnesses who may have seen or heard anything suspicious in the immediate area or elsewhere on on St. Aldates or High Street.  They are also asking for assistance from area businesses who may have CCTV footage which could aid in their investigation.   Officers can be contacted by calling the non-emergency number 101, or making a report online using the reference 43200087031.  Individuals who wish to remain anonymous can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

October 5, 2019

The Manchester Museum and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies restitute 43 ceremonial and sacred objects

Engraving of the Museum Wormianum from 1655 (via Wikimedia)
Responsible for some of the material since the 1920s, the Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) have announced the plans of formal restitution for 43 secret sacred and ceremonial objects to the Aranda people of Central Australia, Gangalidda Garawa peoples’ of people of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Nyamal people of the Pilbara, and the Yawuru people of Broome. Two formal handover ceremonies will take place handing over the objects at Manchester Museum in late November. 

The returns this Autumn mark the first repatriation from the United Kingdom for the Return of Cultural Heritage project being led by AIATSIS, which explores and facilitates the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials (objects, audio visual, and images) from overseas and follows a recent announcement of the restitution of 42 objects from the Illinois State Museum in the United States after 10 months of discussions.

Often labeled as returns based on the current ‘political correctness’ these restitutions show that museum management in key institutions are beginning to challenge the assumption that the indigenous voice is unimportant and have understood that addressing these concerns, within the museum context and is not merely a selling out on a western rationalist tradition originating in the "European Enlightenment" but instead a very public acknowledgement of the moral case for return by addressing a sense of dispossession by redefining rights of possession.


While the Manchester Museum's reparative justice should be seen as a small victory, one might also ask why it’s taken so long and why so many other museums see it as appropriate to hold such ethnographic items in their collections.     

Well Done Manchester for taking these long and arduous steps. This is how you lead the change. 

September 15, 2019

Museum Theft: Literally taking the piss, a $4.9m golden lavatory has been stolen from Blenheim Palace


Pre-installation view, "America, 2016" by Maurizio Cattelan arriving at Blenheim Palace, 2019
Image Credit Blenheim Palace
Stolen during a burglary just days after it was plumbed into Blenheim Palace, the monumental country house in Woodstock, Oxfordshire where former prime minister Winston Churchill was born, artist Maurizio Cattelan's
Installation view, "America, 2016"
by Maurizio Cattelan
Image Credit: Blenheim Palace
18-karat gold, fully functional toilet has been yanked out of its posh installation setting on Saturday, September 14th.

Titled "America" the solid golden toilet some have deemed a smug symbol of excess, was created for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City where it debuted in 2016 as part of a "interactive" exhibition usable by the museum's patron's as a modest, single-occupancy museum restroom.  Similarly installed this week in Blenheim Palace's wood-panelled surroundings, the artwork is part of Cattelan's first significant solo exhibition in the UK in 20 years, which was set to run from 12 September - 27 October 2019.

In keeping with the interactive hilarity of Cattelan's installation, the golden throne was reservable in three minute time slots via bookings with the visitor's center in the Great Hall of the 18th Century stately home.  Collection patrons at Blenheim Palace were also encouraged to tag themselves in photos using the hashtags #AmericaBlenheimPalace or #CattelanatBlenheimPalace, though thankfully Brit's seem to have more decorum than to snap self-indulgent selfies on a golden loo. 


When a giant gold coin, weighing 100 kilos was stolen from the Münzkabinett (coin cabinet) at the Bode Museum in Berlin in the early morning hours of March 27, 2017 insider involvement was believed to play a part and subsequently thereafter an employee, who held a subcontracting job at the museum was named a suspect. 

During yesterday's remarkably straight-faced press conference, Inspector Richard Nicholls of the  Thames Valley Police addressed the media to announce details of the toilet's theft.  


Authorities believe thieves in possibly two vehicles left the palace after removing the toilet sometime around 4:50 a.m on Saturday, September 15th. A 66-year-old man has been taken into custody in possible connection with the theft but has yet to be named and until now the toilet has not been recovered. 

All puns aside, and in this case there are many floating around, gold is presently valued at around $1,500 per troy ounce. 18 karat gold is a mixture of pure gold and other metals in the ratio 3:1.  Using that ratio, the toilet would have been made up of 75% pure gold, 15% silver and 10% copper.  Weighing in at 103 kilos of gold (3311.53 troy ounces), once melted down, the smelted gold would be worth $4,967,295 USD.

Person's with any information regarding this incident, should contact the Thames Valley Police on 101, quoting URN 273 (14/9), or report their information via their law enforcement website: https://www.thamesvalley.police.uk

October 13, 2018

Restitution: Two Etruscan Objects returned to Italy from Great Britain

Image Credit:  ARCA From Left to Right - Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, Commander of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Britain's Minister of State for the Armed Forces Mark Lancaster, General of Army Corps Sabino Cavaliere, Commander of Mobile Units and Specialized Carabinieri 'Palidoro', Jill Morris, U.K. ambassador to Italy, and Detective Sergeant Rob Upham, chief of London's Metropolitan Police, Art & Antiques Squad.

In a formal ceremony on Thursday the 11th of October at the Villa Wolkonsky, the official residence of the British ambassador to Italy in Rome, UK authorities returned two Etruscan artifacts recovered by the Metropolitan Police in consultation with Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale.  Both objects had been located within the vibrant London antiquities market.  

The bronze Etruscan statuette of Lares had been stolen from the Museo Archeologico di Siena in 1988.  According to Detective Sergeant Rob Upham, on hand for the handover from New Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit, the terracotta Etruscan askos (a flask with spout and handle shaped like a sphinx), had once passed through the inventory of a convicted Italian ancient art dealer.   Elaborating to the press Upham added that the seller of the object in the UK appeared to be in good faith and therefore was treated as a cooperating witness during the Metropolitan police investigation. 

Image Credit:  ARCA Objects restituted
from the UK to Italy
To further the culture of legality in the field of protection of cultural heritage, and to highlight the UK's ongoing cooperation with their Italian counterparts, British Ambassador to Italy, Jill Morris CMG opened Villa Wolkonsky for the restitution ceremony highlighting the importance of recovery operations and welcoming experts from Italy and the UK in the fields of heritage protection and military cooperation.  Alongside the two restitutions Ambassador Morris and her staff arranged for an exhibition of stolen objects recovered by the Italy's art crime Carabinieri and an informative interactive display of many promising technological tools, made possible by advances in geophysics and remote sensing, which are now being used to assist in the protection of cultural heritage.  

Underpinning the event, was an afternoon heritage symposium titled  'UK-Italy: Partners for Culture' which served to underscore the embassy's commitment to the cultural partnerships established between Italy and the United Kingdom and which was facilitated through the combined efforts of the British Embassy in Rome, the British military, the British Council, the British School at Rome and the British Institute of Florence.   

Recovered objects presented in the exhibition highlighted several of the Carabinieri's significant recovery actions.  Three of which were:

A Violin made in 1567 by Cremonese violin maker Andrea Amati created to celebrate the investiture of King Charles IX of France.  The instrument was illegally exported from Italy in 2010 to the United States.


A I-II century CE limestone Palmyrene funerary relief, plundered from a hypogeum located at the archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria.  This stele was recovered from of an individual in Turin following investigations by the Italian authorities into the illicit trafficking of archaeological assets from the Middle East.  

Each of the historic objects selected for Thursday's exhibition provided attendees with a narrative fulcrum of the pervasiveness and diversity of threats against heritage and the importance of preserving the delicate balance that exists between admiring and preserving the the past through connoisseurship and collecting and the loss of historical context when objects are stolen or looted.

On hand for the event, UK Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, announced that his country's Army-led Cultural Property Protection Unit (CPPU) has now been fully established as part of the UK Government’s implementation of the Hague Convention.  This instrument places obligations on signatory country's armed forces for the protection of cultural property from damage, destruction, and looting.  Minister Lancaster also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to the Statement of Intent signed earlier this year which furthers defence and security cooperation between Italy and the United Kingdom on a wide range of security challenges.

Speaking on behalf of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli highlighted the successes of his country's team since the founding of ‘Carabinieri’ Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in 1969.  Since its creation, the branch of the Italian Carabinieri responsible for combatting art and antiquities crimes has recovered more than 797,000 works of art and confiscated 1,096,747 archaeological finds.  The tenacious efforts of the unit's personnel in deterring the global clandestine market of antiquities, in collaboration with police, military forces and judicial authorities of others countries, serves as the gold standard military police model for addressing the far-reaching, multiform and pernicious problem of illicit trafficking and art theft, both nationally and transnationally. 

General Parrulli also emphasized Italy's ‘Unite4Heritage’ (Blue Helmets for culture) project, which was approved unanimously by UNESCO, as a division available and trained, to be used as needed both inside and outside Italy, for the protection of the cultural heritage in the event of natural disasters, armed conflicts or an international crisis at the request of the UN, UNESCO or State Parties.  Composed of 30 Carabinieri, a commander, and heritage experts (archaeologists, art historians, computer engineers and geologists) from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, this team has been put in place to  support local police forces in their efforts to prevent looting, plundering and trafficking of historical and artistic heritage, as well as in the recovery and protection of these assets in times of crisis.

Seventy years after the British Army last had officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections during the Second World War and following the UK's ratification of the Hague Convention (1954), which makes it an obligation for the Armed Forces to have a military CPP unit, Lt. Col. Tim Purbrick OBE VR will be the first to lead the UK's newly formed Cultural Property Protection Unit.  During his presentation Lt. Col. Purbrick stated that his unit will consist of 15 trained experts, drawing from members of the Army, Navy, RAF, and Royal Marines as well as civilian experts, brought on board as Army reservists.  His team is expected to work closely with their Italian counterparts to advance the UK's own international military expertise within the sector of cultural property protection. 

Image Credit:  Carabinieri TPC  -
Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, Commander
of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the
Protection of Cultural Heritage and Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

ARCA also was invited to give a presentation at the symposium on the Association's contributions to the research academic examination of art crimes as a notable criminological area worthy of more profound study.   Speaking simply as a watchful observer to some of the problems existing within the licit art market, Lynda Albertson's presentation touched some of the impediments to successful prosecution of heritage crimes as they relate to the transnational movement of illicit  cultural objects.  

During her presentation Ms. Albertson highlighted the multijurisdictional movement of objects, as they transit from country of origin to country of purchase, discussing ARCA's initiatives in Italy and to providing training to heritage personnel in the Middle East as a way to assist in the tracking and identification of objects stolen from vulnerable source countries. 

Highlighting an insufficient number of law enforcement officers outside of Italy's formidable art squad, and the need for adequate funding to pay experts who presently monitor the market on a volunteer basis, Ms. Albertson also stressed the need for dedicated public prosecutors specializing in art and antiquities crimes and mandatory uniform reporting requirements for object provenance in the market as the market's opacity impedes the tracking stolen and looted objects and exacerbates the collective damage we all suffer when cultural goods are siphoned away through illegal exportation and trafficking. 

ARCA would like to thank Ambassador Morris for her kind invitation to participate and for her recognition of the value of culture in its own right and as a vector for Italy-UK cooperation. 

October 10, 2018

Trial dates tentatively set for December 2018 for 19 "Operation Demetra" defendants


Judges from the Tribunale del Riesame di Caltanissetta, the court of first instance with general jurisdiction in criminal matters within the territory of Caltanissetta, Sicily, have set a tentative date for trial of December 2018 for 19 of the individuals connected to Italy's Operation Demetra. 


Resident of Belpasso, Italy
Palmino Pietro Signorello, 66

Residents of Campobello di Licata, Italy
Francesco Giordano, 71 
Luigi Giuseppe Grisafi, 64

Residents of Gela, Italy
Giuseppe Cassarà, 58
Simone Di Simone, (also known as "Ucca aperta"), 46
Rocco Mondello, 61
Orazio Pellegrino, (also known as "nacagliacani"), 54

Resident of Mazzè, Italy
Salvatore Pappalardo, 55

Residents of Paternò, Italy
Luigi Signorello, 34

Residents of Ravanusa, Italy
Matteo Bello, 53
Calogero Ninotta, (also known as "Lilli"), 39
Gaetano Romano, (also known as "Mimmo"), 58

Residents of Riesi, Italy
Angelo Chiantia, (also known as "Faccia pulita") 59  
Francesco Lucerna, (also known as "U zu Ginu") 76
Gaetano Patermo, (also known as "Tano"), 63

Resident of Strongoli, Italy
Luigi La Croce, 62

Residents of Torino, Italy
Giovanni Lucerna, 49
Maria Debora Lucerna, 55

Resident in Stanmore (London), UK
William Veres, (also known as “il professore"), 64

Lawyers for the accused are:

Ivan Bellanti
Angelo Cafà
Paolo Di Caro
Davide Limoncello
Ignazio Valenza

The gup of the Court of Caltanissetta, also has decided to revoke the precautionary measures, of three defendants who had previously been released pending trial to their homes with permission to go to leave to go to and from work.  Those individuals are Francesco Giordano, Luigi Giuseppe Grisafi, and Calogero Ninotta.

Previously the Italian courts rejected an appeal made through attorney, Davide Limoncello, presented in relation to a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for William Veres. The London-based Hungarian antiquities dealer is one of the strategic names in Operation Demetra, an Italian-led illicit trafficking blitz carried out by law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in July 2018. 

Veres has been released on bail with supervised release conditions while he awaits the UK's ruling at London’s Westminster Magistrates Court as to whether or not he should be extradited to Italy to face the charges against him. Extradition to Italy is regulated by law as well as by international conventions and agreements. In general, extradition, is this case between Britain and Italy, means that Italy has asked the UK to surrender Veres as a suspected criminal in order to stand trial for an alleged violation of the Italian law. But before doing so, the antiquities dealer is entitled to an extradition hearing. For more on this procedure, please see our previous article here. 

Should the UK judge, at the extradition hearing, decide it would be both proportionate and compatible, Veres' extradition to Italy would subsequently be ordered and Veres would then, if he so chose, ask the UK High Court for permission to appeal this decision, provided that request is made within seven days of the previous order. If the High Court does not grant his appeal, in that situation and later affirms the lower court's ruling that extradition is both proportionate and compatible, Veres would become subject to extradition within 10 days of the final court order, and would then be transferred to Italy either in time for the December court hearing, or to be rescheduled at a later date. 

August 8, 2018

Sicilian judges reject appeal made by William Veres

Screenshot of William Veres from the documentary
“The Hunt for Transylvanian Gold
Judges from the Tribunale del Riesame di Caltanissetta, the court of first instance with general jurisdiction in criminal matters within the territory of Caltanissetta, Sicily, have rejected an appeal made through attorney, Davide Limoncello,  presented in relation to a European arrest warrant (EAW) issued for William Veres.  The London-based Hungarian antiquities dealer is one of 41 persons who have been named in Operation Demetra, an Italian-led illicit trafficking blitz carried out by law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in July 2018.  

The appeal presented by Limoncello on behalf of Mr. Veres was made to address the personal and real precautionary measures requested by the Italian authorities in relation to his client, deemed necessary by the prosecutor in the context of the criminal proceedings related to the case. 

Veres was taken into custody on 4 July by officers from London's Metropolitan Police - Art and Antiques Unit at his home in Forge Close, Stanmore in north-west London.  Subsequent to his arrest, Veres was released on bail with supervised release conditions while he awaits the UK's ruling at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court as to whether or not he should be extradited to Italy to face the charges against him.

Extradition to Italy is regulated by law as well as by international conventions and agreements. In general, extradition, is this case between Britain and Italy, means that Italy has asked the UK to surrender Veres as a suspected criminal in order to stand trial for an alleged violation of the Italian law.  But before doing so, the antiquities dealer is entitled to an extradition hearing.

During that extradition hearing a UK judge will need to be satisfied that the conduct described in the European arrest warrant amounts to an extraditable offence in Great Britain.  This means, in almost all cases, that the alleged conduct of the suspect would also amount to a criminal offence were it to have occurred in the UK.  The UK courts would also have to evaluate whether or not  any of the UK's statutory bars to extradition apply. 

Most of the bars prohibiting extradition in the UK have to do with double jeopardy, the absence of a prosecution decision (whether the prosecution case against the accused is sufficiently advanced) or whether or not the request by the requesting foreign authority is improperly motivated.   The London judge will also decide if extradition would be disproportionate or incompatible with Veres'  human rights. 

Should the judge at the extradition hearing decide it would be both proportionate and compatible, Veres' extradition to Italy would subsequently be ordered.  Veres could then, if he so chose, ask the UK High Court for permission to appeal this decision, provided that request is made within seven days of the previous order.  

If the High Court grants an appeal, in that situation and later affirms the lower court's ruling that extradition is both proportionate and compatible, Veres would become subject to extradition within 10 days of the final court order (unless an agreement to extend, due to exceptional circumstances, is made with Italy).

By:  Lynda Albertson

March 19, 2017

One well documented theft = three separate seizures - Egypt's successes in curbing the sale of a stolen ancient objects

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Four years after being stolen and then trafficked illegally out of Egypt, a painted wooden New Kingdom mummy mask has been returned to its country of origin this week, after turning up at a French antiquities auction in December 2016.

The mask is just one of 96 artifacts from the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman periods, discovered during foreign archaeological missions which were stolen in 2013, during a break-in of the Museum of Antiquities storage facilities at Elephantine. An archaeologically rich island, Elephantine is the largest island in the Aswan archipelago in Northern Nubia, Egypt. The island lies opposite central Aswan, just north of the First Cataract on the Nile.  


Given that the professionally excavated objects were formal discoveries by authorized archaeological missions, versus illicitly excavated, the stolen antiquities, were well documented.   This gave the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities the necessary evidentiary documentation to list the ancient objects as possibly in circulation with national and international law enforcement authorities.  

One Well Documented Theft = Numerous Separate Seizures

Monitoring the antiquities market closely, Egypt has succeeded in stopping the sale of several stolen objects from this single theft over the last few years. In this most recent incident, once the mummy mask had been spotted, Shabaan Abdel Gawad, the general supervisor of the Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, was able to request that the mask's auction be halted, demanding the object's return through formal channels via the Egyptian embassy in Paris.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Earlier, on January 29, 2017, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced that a deputy from the British Museum had handed over a 16.5 centimeter tall, carved wooden Ushabti statue with gold inscriptions.  This ancient object, stolen during the same break-in, had been relinquished by a British citizen. The funerary object had been excavated by Spanish archaeologists at the site of the Qubbet al-Hawa Necropolis in Aswan, and dates to ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period (circa 1990 BCE – 1775 BCE). 

Ushabti statues, sometimes called simply "Shabtis" by dealers in the antiquities trade, are very popular with ancient art collectors. These small wooden and stone figurines were once placed in Egyptian tombs, intended to function as the servants of the deceased during their afterlife.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
On June 14, 2015 a 2,300 year old Ancient Egyptian ivory statuette was identified up for sale at the Aton Gallery of Egyptian Art in Oberhausen, Germany. Stolen during the same 2013 robbery, this 11.5 cm tall, statuette of a man carrying a gazelle over his shoulders, was unearthed in 2008 by a Swiss archaeological mission that had been carrying out excavations at the Khnum Temple at Elephantine.  Once identified at the auction house, the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry reported the auction to INTERPOL.

The statuette is believed to date back to Egypt's Late Period, from 664-332 BCE which ended with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

According to a screenshot grabbed by ARCA on June 14, 2015 (and since removed from the dealer's website), the web page depicted the object's upcoming auction and included a reserve price of $5050.  At the time of the auction, Aton Gallery had listed the provenance for the ivory figurine as being part of a German private collection, formed in the 60s and 70s, before being part of an earlier American Collection formed in the 1930s.  Misleading provenance, in this case either by the auction house or the consignor, underscores how easy stolen and looted antiquities can be made to appear part of older more established collections, when in fact they are not. 
ARCA Screenshot capture: June 14, 2015
Piece by priceless piece, Egypt is taking collectors and dealers to task.  And while 93 of the 96 stolen items are still out there, three recoveries are better than none.  

France Desmarais of ICOM’s International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods has stated 

"Stolen items are not necessarily lost forever because many can be recovered and will inevitably resurface at some point in time, whether in the art market or while crossing borders."

But Egypt’s police force and governmental heritage authorities can only do so much in their protection of the country’s thousands of archaeological sites, museums and historical objects.  This vulnerability is something looters are all too aware of. 

Playing on the limited resources of source countries, especially those suffering from political turmoil, looters, middlemen and traffickers can wait years before floating highly valued pieces onto the licit art market.   In the interim, those dealing in black market sales sustain themselves financially on the proceeds derived from a small but steady trickle of smaller finds, often dribbled out to lesser known dealers and galleries. As the art market is adapting to online sales, some items are not being sold through brick and mortar shops any longer, instead, objects are passing through simple one on one, online or social media transactions. 

But while objects from well documented thefts like the one on the Elephantine storeroom eventually do resurface, the process of identify-seizure-forfeiture, on an object by object basis is a painfully slow, and only moderately successful, road to repatriation.  

To staunch the flow of high demand antiquities for vulnerable source countries collectors must begin to hold themselves more accountable.  Knowing what we know today, collectors should curb their consumerist tendencies of wanting what they want when purchasing ancient art without documentation of legal export. More often than not, antiquities without sound paperwork have a higher probability of having been stolen or looted. 

It's time for collectors to take themselves to task, taking stock in the origins of their past purchases and voluntarily relinquishing items bought in the past without concern for legality, when they have have contributed to the theft and looting of historic sites around the globe.

Doing the Right Thing

If you are a collector and you suspect an antiquity you have purchased may have been looted or stolen, here are some things you can do.


If your object is on one of these lists, consult with your local museum's curatorial staff. 

Lastly, Interpol, National Law Enforcement, UNESCO, ICOM and organizations like ARCA maintain contacts with experts familiar with looted and stolen art.   If you have doubts about a purchase and don't know who to contact or need help with the ancient remains in a specific country, please write to us here

By:  Lynda Albertson